Life is the great teacher

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Senator, scholar and survivor. Sen. David Norris sits down with Shane Hannon to discuss his fight for human rights, battle with cancer, and that Presidential election.

 “To learn one must be humble. But life is the great teacher.” It was Mr. Deasy who observed that in James Joyce’s iconic novel Ulysses, and David Norris, a Joycean scholar himself, will attest to those words. A teacher in a past life having been a lecturer and tutor at Trinity College between 1968 and 1996, Norris’ political and public life has been dominated by his campaigning and activism for various issues that are close to his heart.

As the first openly gay person to ever be elected to a national parliament, Norris has always been a keen advocate and ambassador for LGBT rights. He wrote in his 2012 autobiography A kick against the pricks that he was “born a criminal”, pointing out that “From the moment of my arrival on this planet my essential nature defined me as such.” In some areas of the world the issue of equality for LGBT groups has a long way to go; countries like Sudan and parts of Nigeria even carry the death penalty for the ‘crime’. Norris has always campaigned for equality no matter what someone’s sexual orientation may be, saying “It’s not an inherent trait to hate people because they are gay.”

When quizzed on the intriguing title of his book, he is refreshingly honest. “A prick is a goad, it’s used to push an animal in a direction it doesn’t want to go. And I found society, authority and institutions were always pushing me in directions I didn’t want to go. Of course I used it in the other sense. Not the sexual sense, just in that there are an awful lot of pricks around that need a good kicking.”

Growing up gay in Ireland fifty years ago can’t have been an enjoyable experience, and Norris confirms that. “Nobody mentioned the word homosexual. I didn’t know the word gay, I just knew I was some kind of monster.” He points out that “As a gay person you didn’t feel real. You weren’t actually a real person.” One extraordinary event when he was younger occurred when he fell ill with a suspected heart attack. After being rushed to Baggot Street Hospital, Norris was told it was down to anxiety and sent to a psychiatrist. Incredibly, he was merely informed that homosexuality was illegal in Ireland and to move to “somewhere like the south of France”, as though it were his sexual orientation that was the problem. To Norris it seemed that “In order to be Irish you had to be white, heterosexual, Roman Catholic and Republican. Well I only scored one of those, I was white!”

Norris was ultimately drawn into the world of politics, having been influenced by figures like Noel Browne and British Labour politician Tony Benn, who died earlier this year. He says it was figures like Browne and Benn who would “tell the truth no matter what trouble it got them into” and that is clearly the way in which Norris has approached his own political career. “I was always an organiser. The first time I got into politics was when Mary Robinson went for the Senate for the first time and I learned how it was done.”

The North Great Georges Street resident was first elected to Seanad Éireann in 1987, and he has been re-elected at every sitting since. “It took me six elections over ten years but I got in. They were very suspicious of me because they thought I was a one-issue candidate, that I was only going for election because I was gay. That was to a certain extent true at the beginning but it quickly broadened out a lot.”

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David Norris has never been one to shy away from the controversial issues, and in 1977 he mentioned abortion on a political manifesto. His views are unquestionably left-wing and he is of the opinion that it is a pity Communism died out. “I think the right implantation of Communism is Christianity. Communism says ‘from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.’ Well what’s wrong with that? I think that’s wonderful.” In 1988 a fourteen-year struggle culminated in Norris helping to overthrow the criminalisation of homosexual acts law, which he claimed at the time pushed Ireland “towards a more tolerant and plural society.”

Norris is also keenly aware of other major issues facing the modern world. “The biggest problem facing the planet is overpopulation. In my lifetime the population has trebled, it is absolute madness.” He refers to ethologist John B. Calhoun’s coining of the term ‘behavioural sink’ to accurately describe the collapse in behaviour that resulted in his experiment on rats when overcrowding came into play. “Once the population of animals gets above a certain level they start exhibiting neurotic behaviour, including compulsive masturbation, cannibalism and neurotic isolation. This is what’s happening to the human population, even if that’s a very crude way of describing it.”

Although he himself is a prominent member of the Church of Ireland, Norris is an admirer of the “absolutely wonderful” Pope Francis, who he feels is making much more progress than his predecessors as Bishop of Rome on certain important issues. “He looks at things that matter like injustice and inequality and he’s not obsessed by sex. He identifies with the poor and the marginalised.” Senator Norris is clearly a man who enjoys and is passionate about what he does, and he attributes this to figures like Pope Francis. “The people I admire most are people like the present Pope – he has a sense of humour, he can laugh, he doesn’t have to be pompous all the time. Archbishop Tutu and the Dalai Lama – I think they too are wonderful, wonderful people.” He adds that he is “a deeply serious person who has been committed to and been successful on some very serious issues of human rights, but it doesn’t mean I can’t laugh and have fun.”

Many will recall the Presidential election of 2011 as one of scandal, suspicion and finger-pointing. The media circus attempted to dig up dirt on most of the seven candidates, and Norris himself had topped numerous opinion polls during the election race. Ultimately however his campaign fizzled out thanks largely to a media man-hunt seeking to dig out skeletons in his closet. He eventually finished fifth out of seven candidates with 6.2% of first preference votes, having left and then re-entered the race. “Each of the other candidates got one slap, more or less. I got it every single day – I was described as a cocaine addict, an alcoholic, I was blind, an income tax fraud, a pension cheat… then it was said that I openly advocated sex between a parent and their own children. That’s about the vilest thing you can possibly say about anybody.”

Norris firmly believes the media’s behaviour during the election campaign was “rank homophobia” and a “deliberate political assassination”. Things took a sinister turn for the Senator when some newspapers hired their crime editors to report on him. “They followed me to Cyprus and took photos of me getting out of my car and going into my house with shopping bags!” He plans to set things right however and has several libel actions outstanding; he also plans at some stage to pen Volume Two of his autobiography and wants to push through privacy legislation. “I haven’t finished with those bastards, believe you me. The media in this country have made an enemy in me. There are some people who are decent, I could count them on two hands. The rest are despicable and I won’t speak to them.”

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Although he was unsuccessful in his presidential run three years ago and has no plans to run again, Norris was clearly pleased with the outcome. He describes Michael D. Higgins as “a President of whom we can be justly proud” and maintains that “I said to him if I wasn’t running myself I’d have been on a bus campaigning for him.” In the election President Higgins received 60% of Senator Norris’ Number Two votes, and vice versa.

The stress of the Presidential election run clearly took its toll on Norris’ health, and he has revealed since that he had a nervous breakdown and suffered from depression in the aftermath. “I got through it but my doctor told me afterwards that I had been through a major nervous breakdown on my feet, and that’s what triggered my cancer, I have no doubt about that.” He began treatment for liver cancer last year which he attributes to the stress of the last few years, as well as viral hepatitis contracted from tainted drinking water on unpaid government business in Eastern Europe in 1994. The tumour on his liver was inoperable, so he underwent a successful six-hour long liver transplant operation in St. Vincent’s Hospital at the start of the summer.

Norris is adamant one need only look at Ireland’s past to show what it is capable of in the future as a nation, and points to the country’s contributions to science as evidence. “Every child on the planet knows Boyle’s Law, but none of them know he was Irish. Nobody knows we had the largest telescope in the world for most of the 19th Century in Birr, that we invented the language of computers, Boolean algebra, down in UCC.” He claims however that we have to first focus on injustices and human rights. “Now we have people below proper nutrition levels in the country because of poverty, we have evictions, we have soup kitchens, we have people being told to jump up and down in schools because they can’t afford the heating. What are we talking about? What are we celebrating in 2016?”

Norris plans to continue his role as a Senator and voice for the people of Ireland, with plans to once again go for election in 2016. When asked what the Seanad does for the country, he points out that one need only look at its record and the amount of legislation that has been introduced. “We had no Foreign Affairs Committee, and I managed to get that pushed through the Senate… we were the first group to address the question of AIDS. The Dáil were wetting themselves, they were too cowardly to do it.” He feels the Seanad’s work is often “technical, not sexy” that their job is to “support the government in improving legislation.”

Having openly discussed his funeral plans, Norris is a man with a clear idea of how he wants to live his life, as well as the legacy he desires to leave. He describes the Presidential campaign trail as a wonderful experience because he “saw the nobility and decency of the Irish people.” The same nobility and decency can be seen in Senator Norris himself through his campaigns for human rights and equality. There is a line in ‘The Ballad of Joe Hill’, one Norris plans to have playing at his funeral in the hopefully-distant future, which sums him up quite eloquently. David Norris is a man who genuinely is “… as big as life.”

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